The agonist dissociation constants (KA) and relative efficacies of UK-14304, norepinephrine (NE) and clonidine at presynaptic release-modulating alpha-2 adrenoceptors were determined in rat cerebral cortex slices using the irreversible alpha-2 adrenoceptor antagonist N-ethoxycarbonyl-2-ethoxy-1,2-dihydroquinoline (EEDQ) (0.8 mg/kg i.p.) to reduce the receptor pool. Eighteen hours after treatment, the slices were incubated with [3H]NE, superfused in the presence of reuptake inhibitor and stimulated electrically with short bursts of 4 pulses delivered at 100 Hz (pseudo-one-pulse; POP) or trains of 36 or 72 pulses delivered at 3 Hz. EEDQ treatment did not affect the overflow of radioactivity evoked by POP, but greatly facilitated overflow at 36 or 72 pulses/3 Hz indicating that the autoinhibition seen under the latter conditions is totally lacking with POP stimulation. KA values determined using 4 pulses/100 Hz were 136, 50 and 625 nM for UK-14304, clonidine and NE, respectively. At 36 or 72 pulses/3 Hz the values were higher by a factor of up to 3. The percentage of receptors active after EEDQ treatment was found to be 5.5 to 8.2% and was not influenced by conditions of stimulation. Receptor reserves were estimated to be about 65% for UK-14304 and NE and 40% for clonidine. The efficacies of UK-14304 and clonidine relative to NE were 1 and 0.5, respectively. The data indicate that KA values for agonists at presynaptic alpha-2 autoreceptors are inevitably underestimated if the released transmitter causes inhibition of release in addition to the drug under investigation.